Pandemic reveals racial inequities at restaurants, here’s what some are doing about it

After leaving the military and choosing a culinary career path about eight years ago, New Orleans chef Byron Bradley leaned into his passion for food and sought to build a resume that could open doors.He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in kitchens at a dozen restaurants […]

After leaving the military and choosing a culinary career path about eight years ago, New Orleans chef Byron Bradley leaned into his passion for food and sought to build a resume that could open doors.He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in kitchens at a dozen restaurants — from French Quarter fine dining to James Beard Award-winning Gramercy Tavern in New York City.Bradley said he followed the advice of mentors who said he should work at every kitchen station within a year. They told him that after two years at one restaurant, he should be in a good spot to pursue a sous chef position, the second in command in the kitchen. Most New Orleans job postings for sous chefs that WDSU reviewed ask for between two and three years of experience as criteria. With his CIA degree and three years of experience under his belt at one New Orleans restaurant, Bradley said he talked with his boss about the prospect of being promoted.“It just led to, ‘OK, I think in 10 years … we can invest into you and possibly do something like, you know, move you up, and yada yada, yada,’” Bradley recalled. He quit. Data show that in majority-Black New Orleans, restaurant executives and managers are mostly white by large margins. Black people, like Bradley, make up a larger share of back-of-house and lower-paying jobs. As the industry looks to recover from the pandemic, some restaurateurs say there’s an opportunity for businesses to inject more racial equity in their policies, pay scales and promotion practices.“As painful as everything has been over the last 13 months of this pandemic … it’s allowed some organizations, and ours being one, to really to be very thoughtful and intentional about how we do things and what direction we want to go,” said Cafe Reconcile executive director Gerald Duhon. Bradley is preparing for a soft opening at his new restaurant in the Catahoula Hotel. His catering company, 2 Brothers 1 Love, has carved out a niche on film and commercial sets. Bradley said he went out on his own as soon as he was financially secure enough to do so. That was always the plan, he said, because he saw no long-term career path working for a white restaurant owner. He recalled a Black colleague who worked at a restaurant 19 years before being promoted.“With a lot of this, this undermining or this level of not seeing (Black people) at the same rate, it’s subconscious,” he said. “It’s not (for) us to change, and it’s been 400 years at this point, you know. We should focus on ourselves.” The case for equity For those committed to investing in equity, Duhon and others say the payoff isn’t just moral. Cafe Reconcile, a nonprofit that runs a restaurant and business focused on training mostly Black, at-risk youth for the culinary industry, raised its minimum wage to $15 last year.“We had our best financial year that we ever had,” Duhon said.Toure Folkes leads the nonprofit Turning Tables, which uses mentorship to achieve equity in the bartending sphere. Talking with a reporter from behind the bar at Coquette, where he used to bartend, Folkes, who is Black, said he has witnessed what visible diversity can do to attract clientele. “Seeing me behind the bar, I think I’ve noticed that there’s people of color that will come and sit at my bar and feel comfortable in that space,” Folkes said.A 2018 report from the Louisiana-Data Center counted nearly 600 full-service restaurants in New Orleans that employed nearly 15,000 people in 2017. It found that 80% of executives and about 70% of managers were white. That’s in a city that’s 60% Black and 34% white. White people made up the largest share of the wait staff, while Black people accounted for more cooks, food preppers and dishwashers, the report said. The report, titled Benchmarking New Orleans’ Tourism Economy: Hotel and Full-Service Restaurant Jobs, also found executives made an average hourly wage of $85 and managers made more than $40 an hour, compared with $11 an hour for cooks and $10 an hour for wait staff. While tourism and hospitality drive the city’s economy, 93 percent of workers in full-service restaurants are in jobs that pay a median wage less than $15 per hour, according to the Data Center.Folkes said while the pandemic made people realize how much the experience of dining out means to them, the past 13 months has also exposed the vulnerability of the hospitality workforce. “People that make those drinks, people that make your food, people that bring that food to your table, the people that allow you to just like sit there and be carefree, we’re not protected,” Folkes said. “We don’t even make like a livable hourly wage.” Duhon said he sees a livable wage, in addition to benefits such as vacation and sick time, as the most critical aspect of achieving more equity in the hospitality industry. With a $2.13 minimum wage for tipped employees, he argues that gratuities should be pooled. Some restaurants, such as Pagoda Cafe, charge a service fee instead, explaining to customers it ensures an hourly wage of $15 an hour for their employees. “If people are quitting (restaurant jobs) because they got a stimulus check, then the problem is not that they don’t want to work. It’s that you probably aren’t paying them enough to begin with,” Duhon said. ‘It does require humility’ Made in New Orleans, a local hospitality-focused nonprofit group, is partnering with a national group that provides diversity equity and inclusion consulting at 20 local restaurants. The program starts in July and lasts two years. Made in New Orleans director Lauren Darnell said they’re not interested in working with restaurant partners simply looking to check a box. The program begins with an “equity audit” where owners and managers may face hard truths. “It does require humility,” Darnell said. “People really aren’t comfortable saying, ‘I’m racist.’ And that’s OK. But if you look at the definition of what racism is, if you have a particular skin tone, and you benefit from whiteness, then you are participating in a system that oppresses other people. “It’s not that you’re a bad person … It’s about taking responsibility and working together to make a difference.” Some of the businesses that have applied for the program are Black-owned, such as Bradley’s catering company. But most are white-owned: Gracious Bakery, Bacchanal, Palm and Pine, Marjie’s Grill, Pizza Delicious, Turkey and the Wolf, and Leblanc + Smith. Robért Leblanc of Leblanc + Smith, the company behind Sylvain, Cavan and Barrell Proof, said the company intentionally made hires for its newest project, The Chloe hotel, to “reflect what we think 21st century New Orleans can and should look like.” Leblanc said his restaurants often get feedback from guests who say they appreciate the diversity of the staff, who are salaried and share tips.For restauranters interested in a “temperature check” of their business’s equity, Darnell had a simple suggestion: “Talk to someone who works in that establishment and see how they feel.”Bradley said he’s certain some white restaurant owners and managers have no interest in disrupting the status quo. However, he said, every generation will have more people willing to recognize and address racial inequities. “Kudos to any chef that recognizes that and takes that step forward,” he said. “Let’s continue to make it better.” –April 16 the last day to apply for the “Equity at Work: Hospitality” cohort. Those interested in applying should register for a virtual information session scheduled for noon April 16 by clicking here.

After leaving the military and choosing a culinary career path about eight years ago, New Orleans chef Byron Bradley leaned into his passion for food and sought to build a resume that could open doors.

He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in kitchens at a dozen restaurants — from French Quarter fine dining to James Beard Award-winning Gramercy Tavern in New York City.

Bradley said he followed the advice of mentors who said he should work at every kitchen station within a year. They told him that after two years at one restaurant, he should be in a good spot to pursue a sous chef position, the second in command in the kitchen.

Most New Orleans job postings for sous chefs that WDSU reviewed ask for between two and three years of experience as criteria. With his CIA degree and three years of experience under his belt at one New Orleans restaurant, Bradley said he talked with his boss about the prospect of being promoted.

“It just led to, ‘OK, I think in 10 years … we can invest into you and possibly do something like, you know, move you up, and yada yada, yada,’” Bradley recalled.

He quit.

Data show that in majority-Black New Orleans, restaurant executives and managers are mostly white by large margins. Black people, like Bradley, make up a larger share of back-of-house and lower-paying jobs.

As the industry looks to recover from the pandemic, some restaurateurs say there’s an opportunity for businesses to inject more racial equity in their policies, pay scales and promotion practices.

“As painful as everything has been over the last 13 months of this pandemic … it’s allowed some organizations, and ours being one, to really to be very thoughtful and intentional about how we do things and what direction we want to go,” said Cafe Reconcile executive director Gerald Duhon.

Bradley is preparing for a soft opening at his new restaurant in the Catahoula Hotel. His catering company, 2 Brothers 1 Love, has carved out a niche on film and commercial sets.

Bradley said he went out on his own as soon as he was financially secure enough to do so. That was always the plan, he said, because he saw no long-term career path working for a white restaurant owner. He recalled a Black colleague who worked at a restaurant 19 years before being promoted.

“With a lot of this, this undermining or this level of not seeing (Black people) at the same rate, it’s subconscious,” he said. “It’s not (for) us to change, and it’s been 400 years at this point, you know. We should focus on ourselves.”

The case for equity

For those committed to investing in equity, Duhon and others say the payoff isn’t just moral. Cafe Reconcile, a nonprofit that runs a restaurant and business focused on training mostly Black, at-risk youth for the culinary industry, raised its minimum wage to $15 last year.

“We had our best financial year that we ever had,” Duhon said.

Toure Folkes leads the nonprofit Turning Tables, which uses mentorship to achieve equity in the bartending sphere. Talking with a reporter from behind the bar at Coquette, where he used to bartend, Folkes, who is Black, said he has witnessed what visible diversity can do to attract clientele.

“Seeing me behind the bar, I think I’ve noticed that there’s people of color that will come and sit at my bar and feel comfortable in that space,” Folkes said.

A 2018 report from the Louisiana-Data Center counted nearly 600 full-service restaurants in New Orleans that employed nearly 15,000 people in 2017. It found that 80% of executives and about 70% of managers were white. That’s in a city that’s 60% Black and 34% white.

White people made up the largest share of the wait staff, while Black people accounted for more cooks, food preppers and dishwashers, the report said.

The report, titled Benchmarking New Orleans’ Tourism Economy: Hotel and Full-Service Restaurant Jobs, also found executives made an average hourly wage of $85 and managers made more than $40 an hour, compared with $11 an hour for cooks and $10 an hour for wait staff.

While tourism and hospitality drive the city’s economy, 93 percent of workers in full-service restaurants are in jobs that pay a median wage less than $15 per hour, according to the Data Center.

Folkes said while the pandemic made people realize how much the experience of dining out means to them, the past 13 months has also exposed the vulnerability of the hospitality workforce.

“People that make those drinks, people that make your food, people that bring that food to your table, the people that allow you to just like sit there and be carefree, we’re not protected,” Folkes said. “We don’t even make like a livable hourly wage.”

Duhon said he sees a livable wage, in addition to benefits such as vacation and sick time, as the most critical aspect of achieving more equity in the hospitality industry. With a $2.13 minimum wage for tipped employees, he argues that gratuities should be pooled.

Some restaurants, such as Pagoda Cafe, charge a service fee instead, explaining to customers it ensures an hourly wage of $15 an hour for their employees.

“If people are quitting (restaurant jobs) because they got a stimulus check, then the problem is not that they don’t want to work. It’s that you probably aren’t paying them enough to begin with,” Duhon said.

‘It does require humility’

Made in New Orleans, a local hospitality-focused nonprofit group, is partnering with a national group that provides diversity equity and inclusion consulting at 20 local restaurants. The program starts in July and lasts two years.

Made in New Orleans director Lauren Darnell said they’re not interested in working with restaurant partners simply looking to check a box. The program begins with an “equity audit” where owners and managers may face hard truths.

“It does require humility,” Darnell said. “People really aren’t comfortable saying, ‘I’m racist.’ And that’s OK. But if you look at the definition of what racism is, if you have a particular skin tone, and you benefit from whiteness, then you are participating in a system that oppresses other people.

“It’s not that you’re a bad person … It’s about taking responsibility and working together to make a difference.”

Some of the businesses that have applied for the program are Black-owned, such as Bradley’s catering company. But most are white-owned: Gracious Bakery, Bacchanal, Palm and Pine, Marjie’s Grill, Pizza Delicious, Turkey and the Wolf, and Leblanc + Smith.

Robért Leblanc of Leblanc + Smith, the company behind Sylvain, Cavan and Barrell Proof, said the company intentionally made hires for its newest project, The Chloe hotel, to “reflect what we think 21st century New Orleans can and should look like.”

Leblanc said his restaurants often get feedback from guests who say they appreciate the diversity of the staff, who are salaried and share tips.

For restauranters interested in a “temperature check” of their business’s equity, Darnell had a simple suggestion: “Talk to someone who works in that establishment and see how they feel.”

Bradley said he’s certain some white restaurant owners and managers have no interest in disrupting the status quo. However, he said, every generation will have more people willing to recognize and address racial inequities.

“Kudos to any chef that recognizes that and takes that step forward,” he said. “Let’s continue to make it better.”

April 16 the last day to apply for the “Equity at Work: Hospitality” cohort. Those interested in applying should register for a virtual information session scheduled for noon April 16 by clicking here.

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